State Department:

Staffing Shortfalls and Ineffective Assignment System Compromise Diplomatic Readiness at Hardship Posts

GAO-02-626: Published: Jun 18, 2002. Publicly Released: Jun 18, 2002.

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Foreign service employees often experience difficult environmental and living conditions while assigned to U.S. embassies and consulates that are designated as "hardship posts." These conditions include inadequate medical facilities, few opportunities for spousal employment, poor schools, high levels of crime, and severe climate. Because the State Department is understaffed, both in terms of the number and types of employees, it is difficult to ensure that it has the right people in the right place at the right time. The impact of these staffing shortfalls is felt most strongly at hardship posts, some of which are of strategic importance to the United States. As a result, diplomatic programs and management controls at hardship posts could be vulnerable and the posts' ability to carry out U.S. foreign policy objectives effectively could be weakened. State's assignment system is not effectively meeting the staffing needs of hardship posts. Although American Foreign Service employees are obligated to serve anywhere in the world, State rarely directs employees to serve in locations for which they have not shown interest by bidding on a position. Because few employees bid on these positions, State has difficulty filling them.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In light of GAO's findings that State's assignment system has not been effective in addressing staffing requirements at hardship posts, including many of strategic importance, the Secretary of State should consider a targeted hiring strategy, with measurable goals, designed to specifically address critical shortfalls, such as employees who are proficient in certain foreign languages; are interested in those particular positions, functional specialties, or career tracks that are in short supply; and are interested in serving in hardship locations.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State does not plan to have a targeted hiring strategy.

    Recommendation: In light of GAO's findings that State's assignment system has not been effective in addressing staffing requirements at hardship posts, including many of strategic importance, the Secretary of State should rigorously and systematically determine priority positions that must be filled worldwide as well as positions that will not be filled during each assignments cycle, based on the relative strategic importance of posts and positions and realistic assumptions of available staff resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendations, State has taken a number of actions to enable it to better meet the staffing needs of hardship posts. As part of its position allocation and assignment processes, State is moving toward more systematically determining priority positions that must be filled. As a result of this and other measures, according to State, its record of staffing hardship posts has improved. As of May 2003, about 10 percent of the positions at the most difficult hardship posts remained unfilled compared with 50 percent the previous year.

    Recommendation: In light of GAO's findings that State's assignment system has not been effective in addressing staffing requirements at hardship posts, including many of strategic importance, the Secretary of State should improve personnel and assignment data so that they will (1) allow State to fully assess its human capital capabilities and limitations and enhance the department's workforce planning efforts, and (2) enable State to take a fact-based, performance-oriented approach to human capital management that would involve analyzing bidding and assignment data to determine its success in addressing staffing needs at all posts, including hardship posts and posts of strategic importance to the United States.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the summer of 2003, the Department of State reported taking the unusual step of dedicating an experienced Foreign Service officer to oversee the effort to update the department's personnel and assignment data system. The first stage of the effort, scheduled for completion in August 2003, streamlines and updates the electronic bidding system by which Foreign Service vacancies are advertised and filled. Other planned upgrades will enable State to quantify how many employees have accepted assignments at a higher grade than their personal rank and how many have opted for extended tours of duty at certain hardship posts.

    Recommendation: In light of GAO's findings that State's assignment system has not been effective in addressing staffing requirements at hardship posts, including many of strategic importance, the Secretary of State should develop a package of incentives and implement appropriate actions to steer employees toward serving at hardship posts. Such measures could include (1) proposing a set of financial incentives to Congress that State believes will entice more employees to bid on and accept hardship positions based on analyses that estimate the costs and likelihood of increasing the number of Foreign Service employees who bid on assignments in the selected hardship posts; (2) making hardship service an explicit criterion for promotions and onward assignments; and (3) employing more directive approaches to assignments as necessary to steer fully qualified employees toward hardship posts that require their skills and experience and to ensure that hardship assignments are shared equitably.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In accordance with GAO's recommendation, State convened a Hardship Incentives Working Group in October 2002, which proposed 35 options. As of July 2003, State reported implementing 12 of the proposed options. According to State, its record of staffing hardship posts has already shown some improvement--as of May 2003, about 10 percent of the positions at the most difficult hardship posts remained unfilled, down from 50 percent the year before.

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